The House of Tomorrow — Revised

January 22, 2015

“For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow
Which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.”
– Khalil Gibran

This is how you check for a pulse . . . Place two fingers, preferably the middle and index finger, on the carotid artery. I’ve seen it done many times in movies and on television. Police detectives did it, and doctors, murderers, and loved ones. Now I did it. I placed two fingers on my mother’s carotid artery. Her death rattle had ceased, but the throes had taken so long it was hard to tell if her dying was truly over. I wait for some next thing and cannot quite come to terms with permanent cessation, with an ending. My mother’s face is frozen, the eyes fixed in a surprised gorgon’s glare. Check . . . two fingers . . . is there a pulse? Check again, to be certain . . . yes, there is no pulse . . . the energy, the life force, spirit or soul has dispersed, vacated, flown off somewhere, leaving a husk. The body is now much like an empty house and “the remains” takes on a double meaning. I am stunned with a vague but guilty relief of having nothing more to do. The pulse stopped beating only moments ago, belonged to the person who’d made my life possible 56 years ago. I would not be here if it hadn’t been for her, and now she’s not here, and I think of holding each of my children seconds after they were born, and there are no words that adequately limn these passages into and out of being—into here and gone. This is the mirrored other end.
Her limb was always cold, especially the calf but the thigh too, which as a boy I would not be able to place my hand there very often if at all, possibly those times when she was in a deep sleep. The entire leg was a chilled muscle-less tube of inert flesh and it needed to be borne along by the locomotion of the good leg and hip, as if it were some vagabond hitching a free ride . . . step forward, pull and drag, step forward, and so on . . . When sitting (and I observed this most when she was getting into the car) the dead leg was hoisted toward her with the hand beneath the crook of the knee, raised and then lowered into position parallel with the good leg. I may have written it about it before and wonder if writing about your mother’s dead limb is somehow relevant. Does a dead limb have relevance?
A ring of haze around the cemetery, like a weird telephoto shot, some movie cliché, a scrim overlaying the all too green grass hugging gravestones and the white of marble or pale gray of granite and distant black-clad figures — clergy, mortician, and mourners, their heads bowed, blots of color from the flowers that littered the coffin. Perhaps it was the lawn sprinklers or the summer heat and humidity that caused the haze. And why did they always die in summer? June, July, August; father in June; maternal grandmother in July; mother in August, as though Death wanted to make a more poignant statement, no cold and barren landscapes for The Reaper, he was all about equal opportunity regarding the seasons.

In August nearly one year before burying my mother, I had driven her to the cemetery. Because of her limp from polio, she did not want to climb part way up the hill to the family plot, so I walked up for her and for myself to check on the graves. It was a warm day but with a parched wind . . . I looked at the grave markers of my father, three of my grandparents, and a great aunt. There was only one unused grave left. I looked at the names on all the bronze plaques and then the one marker that was blank, and then I looked up and down the hill at my mother leaning against the car and felt an uneasy stirring over the certainty of her place in this ground. I thought my mother seemed years away from death, but one year later she would be in this family burial site with the rest of them. She didn’t want to stick around. She had waited 11 long years. She wanted to be with my father.

And my mother must have had the stirring herself, maybe in anticipation of the cancer that within a few months would begin to consume her. She said it had been a great day, and I agreed, and when we returned to her apartment, she brought out from her papers a ruled yellow sheet with instructions for her service and burial. She wanted no viewing, no embalming, no special casket obviously. The cost of other funerals, including my father’s, had turned her against the death business, it didn’t make sense to her, spending all that money. We would simply meet at the undertakers on the day of burial, my brother and I would give spiritual readings and people were free to pay their respects, and we would buy our own flowers, and afterwards the mourners, if they chose to, could join us for lunch and then head back to their lives. The plans were simple, the way she liked things.
Early evenings are usually her best time. After dinner she watches TV and I watch TV with her. It is June, already too warm and muggy, especially in the high-rise apartment that lacks any window except in the single bedroom. The main room has a sliding glass door with a screen but lately she wants the door closed because of the traffic noise outside. When the room becomes too claustrophobic and I need air, I step through the sliding door and stand on a small balcony. The building is on Prospect Avenue, one of the most elevated streets in Hackensack where the Piedmont fall line runs through, and the view up here at night is impressive, perhaps beautiful, with the plain of glittering lights and the illuminated bridges that feed into the wall of the Manhattan skyline. But there is also a touch of alienation in the anonymous lights, a sterile loneliness not unlike the made bed in her bedroom where I will sleep because my mother has to sleep in the living room on a hospital bed. I am less than 10 feet from her the whole time but she seems miles away, asleep mostly. The myriad lights of Hackensack, Teaneck, Leonia, Fort Lee pulse and sparkle. My mother calls my name. She needs me to lift her onto the portable toilet.

In the morning I wake her and lift her near weightless body into the wheelchair and move the chair as close to our breakfast table as possible. A TV morning news show might be on in the background, or maybe not. We drink cups of weak chock-full-o-nuts coffee with whole milk and glance at the newspaper headlines and talk. Less interested in the coffee, my mother drinks orange juice and takes some bites of toast. She inhales from a small purple disk labeled “Advair.” There are pill bottles and other medications arrayed along the table, caps and vials to mitigate pain and terminal illness. There is the wheelchair, the gurney, the linens and shiny bed pan. A patch of sun spills through the balcony French doors and makes a pale block on the taupe living room carpet . . . this is what the end of a life looks like . . . sometimes . . . much of the time. . . .
I land in a basement corridor. There are plastic trays sliding on metal racks, the clinking of dishes, plates and silverware, the voices of hospital kitchen workers who prepare the meals that are served in the cafeteria and who clean up the mess and empty the garbage. Their presence is somehow reassuring, Life going on. Double doors swing open—a sharp bump, oiled hinges, and then slamming shut, though quietly, nothing too abrupt. I linger here for some time, a cold dispassionate observer, before noticing the elevator. The light above the doors is stuck on the number four, the fourth floor, but as the doors open the light remains on number four. I step from the elevator onto the fourth floor and check for patient room numbers. I realize I was 12 years younger than I’d been a few minutes earlier, and in a different hospital, which doesn’t matter because all hospitals feel the same at their core: the same starched staff, the same flowers and Mylar balloons, the same gurneys and IVs and surgery wings, the same TV images flickering with a nagging false urgency and importance in patients’ rooms, the same convalescing, the same dying, the same boredom . . . In fact, why check for room numbers? I’ve been here many times before and know my way around reasonably well. The door is shut most of the way so I ease it open, unsure if I’ll find my father or mother lying there, but if I’m really 12 years younger, then it would have to be my father . . . or maybe it would be me. One can never be too sure.

My father is sleeping after one of the hospital’s many surgeries—futile intrusions upon a dying body to keep the machinery of modern medicine working and profitable. Father’s on a morphine drip and unaware of my presence, the IV tree at his bedside like a sterile harbinger alongside a food tray with some uneaten applesauce (why is there always applesauce?). Racing cars circle endlessly on the television above him, a loud and modulated drone, like a swarm of bees with little change in motion, the same few cars in front moving up and then falling slightly behind. Around and around they go with their incessant hum, with their constant looping speed and drone. There’s something Zen-like in the televised drag race, and perhaps the monotony helps to keep my father asleep which is where he needs to be at the moment. I can’t speak with him. The cars spin endlessly around the track until I switch off the television set and leave the hospital. A line of mourners gathers across the street, so I thread my way through the crush of bodies to the head of the line where the pall bearers are loading the casket into the hearse. The undertaker mentions something about my following him, about being in the lead car with the immediate family. There are 20 or more other cars in the procession, displaying those orange signs with the word “Funeral” in bold black letters. Am I attending my burial? (I could be in the casket, the casket is closed). And which parent is this? A barber pole incongruously stands on the sidewalk near the hearse, a phallic glass twisting of red, white and blue. I had gotten my hair cut before both funerals. The routine made sense because at the time I’d wanted to look presentable and well-groomed for the viewing and burial of both my parents, and I was certain they would have wanted me to look my best. The man who’d cut my hair when my father died was an 80-year-old barber who’d been cutting hair for the past six decades—old school of course—attentive, talkative but not overly so, the clipping and snipping so ingrained in him by now that he could cut hair in his sleep, his thumb and forefinger squeezing shears of air while he dreams . . . I remember the barber was in his 80’s and my father was already gone by his early 60’s. Obviously, I bore no resentment toward him but sitting in the pleather chair and making small talk I had been trying to sort out some fundamental unfairness in the cosmic scheme of things . . . when my mother died my haircutter was young and inexperienced and she gave me a pretty bad haircut . . . I genuflect at the base of the barber pole on the sidewalk and make the sign of the Greek Orthodox cross. I then hear “Adagio for Strings” as I climb into the back of the hearse and hoist my body up until it is sprawled prone across the casket . . . .
When they are leaving you there isn’t much you can do except be there with them, a presence in their presence. They are often heavily drugged and asleep, and if not asleep and not eating, then possibly incoherent and far away. They may be aware of you but their speech is often desultory and fragmented, sometimes surreal and humorous. You help with whatever meager skill you can marshal under the circumstances—possibly feed them or give them drink, re-position their body on the bed, procure more ice chips, find the TV remote and either turn the TV off or change the channel. You may stroke or kiss their brow, hold and squeeze their hands hoping for a reciprocal tension, some response, but you honestly don’t need a response, you shouldn’t have any expectation of them acknowledging you or thanking you for your care, and don’t take it personally, it is not about you at all. They are simply leaving, their bodies slipping from your confused grasp. And it’s the idea of total release that seems hardest to wrap one’s mind around. I try to imagine total release from the body—the energy, the soul that has animated the body and quickened the flesh for decades—being cataclysmically dispersed and scattered into the larger or exterior world, or space for that matter. Space then takes on a double meaning. We have the “space” of “outer space,” the cosmos, but then there’s the space immediately surrounding us, the air beyond the tips of our fingers, the crown of our head and the pores of our skin. The two really are not that different when you stop and think about it. Space is space. We are released into nothing. I try to conceive of nothing. I get a mental handle on merging with space and nothing, no separateness, no personal wrapper of energy we call “self” but simply rejoining the universe or space from whence we came. There is no longer harm or hurt to the volatile ego, or pain or shock to the flesh, nothing remotely threatening or horrifying; so why is it then that I’m still occasionally scared shitless by the thought of Death? I believe these memories and musings, random and disjointed as they may appear, will serve as a personal check list of eschatology the way my mother’s notepad once did.
God, the way they decorate these rooms. The placement of flower vases, of overstuffed armchairs and settees and Ottomans, all so artificial and bland, neutral, characterless, a staged representation of Life. They are called homes, but they’re not homes, homes are for living people, these places are theater sets for the Dead. The living people, when they do gather here, are only gathered for the purpose of paying their final respects to the deceased, and the rooms and furniture are so many props on a stage set. The bereaved and their guests greet one another and talk. “I’m so sorry for your loss.” “It’s been a long time, hasn’t it? How are you and how is so-and-so.” The guests’ talk is predictably hushed, though a little hurried and tense too, a conversation to establish a secure wave of presence above the undertow of certain mortality. (“Hey, we’re still here, you and me. Have you heard the one about the duck who walks into a bar?”) Sometimes the gathering is large, a room full of people holding finger pastries and coffee and engaged in roughly the same level of sibilant chatter and laughter as at a staid gala reception turned down a decibel or two.
The day of the surgery to remove half his lung, I drive my father to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital. It’s Thursday and Thursdays are heavily scheduled for lung surgeries, a kind of lung surgery factory—albeit in a highly reputable university hospital. As I am leaving the hospital that morning, the nursing staff informs me that I’ll be contacted when my father is out of surgery, probably around dinner time. But I don’t receive a phone call telling me he’s out of surgery until around until around 9:00 PM (late dinner time). It is mid-June and still light outside, or twilight, as I drive back to the hospital and step into a scene of human wreckage called the post-op area where patients have undergone major surgery to possibly extend their lives. I see good being done here, lives being saved, but at what cost? Movable beds and gurney, IVs’, chrome and stainless steel, lines, but I’m affected most by the smell and especially the sounds: groans and pleas and anger and shock and fear and talk thick with morphine and the big hum and bleeps of monitors and saline solution drips. (He’s not coming back. I’m not coming back. None of us will ever come back).

He recognizes me and I’m not sure if anyone in my life has ever been so glad to see me in that moment, and he’s my father, and it’s good to see him in post-op recovery, but he is also wiped out, exhausted, and drained in a way that’s unsettling. As fraught with relief and a guarded optimism that the moment has to offer I realize his death in the same moment. He’d been careless with his body, indulging a tobacco habit that would ultimately kill him, aided by the toxic environment of paper mills where he’d worked since his late teens up until a few years ago. Forty years in paper mills and smoking for close to half a century. He is 61, and seeing him here now—groggy, disoriented, bantering with the black nurse and trying to make light of having just lost half a lung (his pact for two or three extra years)—will be the official start of him dying. And I need to be here for it . . . I need to witness and understand. . . .
They had deposited him so carelessly following a different surgery, nearly two years later. It was as if they’d already given up on him, a near lifeless shape on the bed, his frail limbs uncovered. I was reminded of the way a marionette is suddenly collapsed when the puppeteer releases the strings and lets it fall in a tangled heap. Yes, if I hadn’t gotten some official message to the contrary, I would have assumed him gone that time.
And I had a dream a week after he died. In the dream he was driving a black hearse and pulled along the curb on the side of our house, and ushered me in. I was ordered to sit in the back seat directly behind him, staring at the back of his head the entire time we drove. I never once saw his face. I looked at the rear view mirror where I knew his face should be, but it was empty, no reflection. I felt shame and foreboding staring at the back of his head. The dream imagery was reminiscent (or influenced by?) a scene out of Cocteau’s Orphee’ where the limousine driver, Hertebeuse, ferries Orpheus and the others into Hades, and once in Hades the black-and-white film of the landscape becomes a negative and the car radio emits messages of gibberish that Orpheus interprets as profound poetry, a new type of Muse.
There’s an announcement when you arrive and an announcement when you depart, a life’s experience compressed into a brief understandable narrative. From one moment in time to another moment in time. The Nazi philosopher Heidegger defined ‘living’ or ‘existence’ as “presencing in Time.” Mark Twain was born and died in two passes or one cycle of Halley’s Comet—76 years. Twain’s life was illustrious and adventurous but also one of remarkable success and senseless tragedy neatly enclosed by the parentheses of a recurring celestial event. Maybe the passage of Time is all we ever really do and the rest we make up, as difficult as that may be for some of us to accept.

After growing to adulthood, the body is always in the process of breaking down, but there comes a point at which you are “painfully” aware of it. You feel the body’s small failures: you have aches and pains; you grow tired more easily; you look in a full length mirror (or maybe not if you dread what you may find there). You have always been both tenant and caretaker of the dwelling known as your body, but over time the caretaker role becomes more prominent and busy so the dweller can continue to dwell. You avoid falls; you monitor your blood pressure and get annual flu shots; you eschew the mainstream vices altogether or cut down; you see doctors more often . . . these are all good things. When the dwelling is on the verge of abandonment, you may even try taking it back to church or accept the visitation and prayers of a clergyman at your hospital bedside, or finger a rosary or, foregoing Christian ritual altogether, read aloud from the Bhagavad-Gita. I’ve decided I will read from the Gita and finger the rosary, and read the Bible and the Quran, Jain texts and other sundry scripture, and allow a dozen holy men and women, mystics, and sages to occupy my bed before that terminal moment as a hedge on the afterlife. I need all the professional shamans I can get to bless and shepherd my spirit to the other side, and I’ll take whatever they’re offering: wine and wafer, holy water, incense, lotus flowers, ashes, last rites, anything . . . it’s as if you are climbing the first hill of an incredibly steep roller coaster and you kind of know but don’t know what’s coming so you hold on real tight to the bar, and once you have crested that hill the descent can be terrifying but by then you know everything will be alright for all eternity, so you loosen your grip a little on that bar and eventually you’re done with the ride altogether and no longer need to hold on.
A huge problem is the logistics of dealing with: “Where are you?” We may muse and wonder about an afterlife, heaven, etc., but frankly it’s the unequivocal vacancy left by the departed that is the hardest thing to grasp. Screw that “he/she is in a better place” stuff. No, I’m afraid the better place would have been here with you—after all, it’s what we know. And it isn’t only the physical presence of the departed that’s missing; there are letters and bills addressed to them and the realization when you habitually pick up the phone to call. You often sense their spirit in nature, or in individual objects, or a pet you may have acquired. It is more about animism than reincarnation (though it might all boil down to the same thing). The animistic impulse is strong.
Five days after my father died a small palm tree was delivered to my apartment, a sympathy gift from co-workers. The palm tree stood three-and-a-half-feet high and was already too large for the pot it had been delivered in from the florist. As emotionally and mentally drained as I was from the details of burial, I right away sensed this palm carried the soul or spirit of my father. After I’d moved back home with my wife and kids I kept re-potting the palm into larger pots so its roots would crawl and suck and cling deeper into the soil. I moved the growing palm outdoors every May and left it to thrive in warmth and sunshine until late October, and it grew to a height of nearly ten feet, grew so tall and massive (not unlike my father) that when I moved the tree back indoors its crown would bend mashed against the nine-foot ceiling, fronds fanning out and splayed along the plaster. My wife and kids jokingly named the palm tree after my father because I’d told them the story, and once I’d perceived that palm tree as being my father, then I never lost the perception or self-imposed myth that the palm tree really was him but in different form. I had the tree for a number of years but eventually needed to sell it during a period of financial stress. At the time I felt that I was selling a part of my body and maybe in some strange, hidden, cellular way, that’s true, as it is in the Tibetan Book of the Dead or any arcane text of metempsychosis.


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